In the mid-fifties, rock ‘n roll was emerging onto the popular music landscape, as wider audiences began to discover the energy and vitality of rhythm and blues records. While many of the first rock ‘n roll performers (like Elvis Presley) performed covers of songs written by others, Little Richard was both a performer and a songwriter. One of his most important hits was the song “Tutti Frutti” which he co-wrote with Dororthy LeBostrie – a song that captured a defining moment for rock and roll history.
Little Richard was born Richard Wayne Penniman on December 5, 1932 in Macon, Georgia. He was the second of 12 children. His father was a church deacon, in addition to being a brick mason, and nightclub owner. He also sold bootleg moonshine on the side. His family was involved with various Christian denominations throughout his childhood (Baptist, A.M.E. and Pentacostal) and were very active members. His grandfather and two uncles were preachers. The Pentacostal church was especially influential on Penniman’s early years; He was drawn to the charismatic style of the worship and to the music he heard in the services. Despite his active participation in the music of the church, Penniman’s father disapproved of his son’s musical style and suspected homosexuality. He kicked his own son out of the home at age 13.
Penniman then worked the concession stand at Macon City Auditorium where he was exposed to all the musical talent that came to his home town and soon began performing at the local Tic Toc Club. After winning a local talent contest, he was signed to RCA in 1951.
This first break did not result in the great career success that Penniman had envisioned. The mild-mannered rhythm and blues recordings he made were lovely performances but they did not reveal the vibrant showmanship for which he would later become known. His true breakthrough came when he teamed up with Art Rupert – founder of Specialty Records. According to Rupert, Penniman had repeatedly called the office asking why no one had responded about the tape that he had sent in. Finally, Rupert and his A&R man at the time, Richard “Bumps” Blackwell, decided to go downstairs and give the tape another listen. Penniman’s persistence paid off. Rupert sent Blackwell to hear Penniman live with the permission to begin recording if he liked what he heard.
Details on the origin story of “Tutti Frutti” vary with both credited writers claiming after-the-fact to have written the song by themselves. The commonly accepted version is that LeBostrie was brought in to clean up the lyrics to a bawdy number that Little Richard often performed live but which was too risque for recorded music in the 1950s.
The story begins with Penniman in the recording studio, feeling a little frustrated that they hadn’t been able to capture the same feel of his live performance. Blackwell recalled: “…the first session was to run six hours, and we planned to cut eight sides. Richard ran through the songs on his audition tape. […] so far so good. But it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I’d heard that Richard’s stage act was really wild, but in the studio that day he was very inhibited.”
In an attempt to energize the sessions, they headed over to the Dew Drop Inn where Little Richard found himself an audience and a piano. He broke into a wild performance of “Tutti Frutti” and Blackwell knew he had found their hit. There was only one problem – the lyrics that Penniman had performed on stage would never pass for radio play. Thinking fast, Blackwell asked Le Bostrie to come in and clean them up:
“…I said to her, “Look. You come and write some lyrics to this, cos I can’t use the lyrics Richard’s got.” He had some terrible words in there. Well, Richard was embarrassed to sing the song and she was not certain that she wanted to hear it. Time was running out and I knew it could be a hit. I talked, using every argument I could think of […] And finally, I convinced them. Richard turned to face the wall and sang two or three times and Dorothy listened.”
Le Bostrie went into another room to quickly write the lyrics while Penniman recorded “Directly from My Heart to You” and “I’m Just a Lonely Guy”. With only fifteen minutes left in the sesion, and Richard left with almost no voice, LeBostrie returned with the new lyrics. Little Richard stepped up to the piano and made rock music history.
“Tutti Frutti” was recorded on September 14, 1955 at J&M Studios in New Orleans. J&M was home to many of early rock ‘n roll’s foundational recordings, not only by Little Richard, but also those of Fats Domino and Guitar Slim. J&M’s founder Cossimo Matassa was even inducted, as a non-performer, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his contributions to rock ‘n roll’s earliest recordings. Many of the session musicians who played on “Tutti Frutti” are the same musicians who played on other early rock n’ roll recordings, like those of Fats Domino. This includes tenor saxophonist Lee Allen, and baritone saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler. Frank Fields played double bass and Earl Palmer was on drums during these sessions, and Justin Adams played guitar on the track.
Pianist Huey Smith was hired for the session and performed on many of these early tracks. However, with the last minute addition of “Tutti Frutti,” and only a few minutes left to record, there was no time to teach Smith the part and Little Richard performed the piano for the song. Blackwell explained:
“There had been no chance to write an arrangement, so I had to take the chance on Richard playing the piano himself. That wild piano was essential to the success of the song. It was impossible for the other piano players to learn it in the short time we had. I put a microphone between Richard and the piano and another inside the piano, and we started to record it. It took three takes, and in fifteen minutes we had it. ‘Tutti Frutti’”
Richard’s driving piano and the vigor of his vocal performance are key elements to the song’s success. His aggressive playing on the piano is the sound which really started the rock ‘n roll revolution. His hoops and hollers set him apart from the rest of the nascent rock ‘n roll landscape, which was largely merging pop’s crooning warmth with rhythm and blue’s rhythmic vitality.
“Tutti Frutti” was released by Specialty in October 1955, only a few weeks after recording. By December, the song had reached the Billboard Rhythm and Blues Charts and by February of 1956, it had risen to number two. The song’s crossover success is a bit more complicated. In 1955, African American artists like Little Richard faced the added struggle of constant competition of cover versions by white artists. For example, Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” was released shortly after Richard’s and reached number 12 on the Pop charts. Little Richard’s version also crossed over to the Pop charts but only reached #21.
If Penniman’s original lyrics were sanitized for recording purposes, Boone’s team took it even further. After Penniman’s 2016 death, Boone reflected on the process of changing the lyrics for 50s radio sensibilities: “I took a liberty now and then and changed a lyric. The hard part about “Long Tall Sally” was singing it in such a way that I didn’t draw attention to the fact that Sally was not Uncle John’s wife. Uncle John saw Aunt Mary coming and he ducked back in the alley, because he was there with Long Tall Sally. I didn’t want to ask what that was about. The subject matter was more of a problem for me with “Tutti Frutti.” Some of the words, like, “She knows how to love me, yes indeed/You don’t know what you do to me,” sounded a little racy. So I changed it to “pretty little Susie is the gal for me.”
Pat Boone’s recollection speaks to the radio dynamics of the mid-fifties, when pop hits were required to be family friendly. Little Richard struggled with Boone’s success – sometimes reflecting on how it had impacted his own by bringing his song to wider audiences…and other times lamenting the racial tensions of the time and the suppression his song experienced when it was easier for record executives to just hire a White artist to cover and piggy-back off of his songwriting and style.
Undoubtedly, Penniman had created a classic song and everyone was drawn to it. Elvis Presley also covered “Tutti Frutti” in March of 1926. The Beatles included it as part of their live set in their early touring days, and Queen even played it on tour in the eighties. It is certainly one of rock ‘n roll’s foundational tracks and a song that changed popular music history forever. It was voted #1 on Mojo’s 2007 list of “The Top 100 Records that Changed the World” declaring it “the sound of the birth of rock and roll.” The US Library of Congress National Recording Registry added Little Richard’s original version to its registry in 2010, explaining that its “unique vocalizing over the irresistible beat announced a new era in music.”
Little Richard has famously called himself the King – and Queen – of Rock ‘n Roll, and certainly he has a claim to the throne. With tracks like “Tutti Frutti” he transformed the popular music landscape of the fifties, creating rhythm and blues tracks that would not only crossover onto the popular charts but truly inspire generations of listeners and musicians to come. His more lasting moniker as the “architect” of rock ‘n roll is certainly fitting. He laid the foundation for what rock ‘n roll was to be and continued to challenge musicians and listeners to keep up as he remained performing across his lifetime.
Written by: Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”!